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William James

American psychologist and philosopher

born Jan. 11, 1842, New York, N.Y., U.S.
died Aug. 26, 1910, Chocorua, N.H.

American philosopher and psychologist, a leader of the philosophical movement of Pragmatism and of the psychological movement of functionalism.

Early life and education
James was the eldest son of Henry James, an idiosyncratic and voluble man whose philosophical interests attracted him to the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. One of William’s brothers was the novelist Henry James. The elder Henry James held an “antipathy to all ecclesiasticisms which he expressed with abounding scorn and irony throughout all his later years.” Both his physical and his spiritual life were marked by restlessness and wanderings, largely in Europe, that affected the training of his children at school and their education at home. Building upon the works of Swedenborg, which had been proffered as a revelation from God for a new age of truth and reason in religion, the elder James had constructed a system of his own that seems to have served him as a vision of spiritual life. This philosophy provided the permanent intellectual atmosphere of William’s home life, to some degree compensating for the undisciplined irregularity of his schooling, which ranged from New York to Boulogne, Fr., and to Geneva and back. The habits acquired in dealing with his father’s views at dinner and at tea carried over into the extraordinarily sympathetic yet critical manner that William displayed in dealing with anybody’s views on any occasion.

When James was 18 years of age he tried his hand at studying art, under the tutelage of William M. Hunt, an American painter of religious subjects. But he soon tired of it and the following year entered the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. From courses in chemistry, anatomy, and similar subjects there, he went to the study of medicine in the Harvard Medical School; but he interrupted this study in order to accompany the eminent naturalist Louis Agassiz, in the capacity of assistant, on an expedition to the Amazon. There James’s health failed, and his duties irked him. He returned to the medical school for a term and then during 1867–68 went to Germany for courses with the physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, who formulated the law of the conservation of energy; with Rudolf Virchow, a pathologist; with Claude Bernard, the foremost experimentalist of 19th-century medicine; and with others. At the same time he read widely in the psychology and philosophy then current, especially the writings of Charles Renouvier, a Kantian Idealist and relativist.

The acquaintance with Renouvier was a focal point in James’s personal and intellectual history. He seems from adolescence to have been a delicate boy, always ailing, and at this period of his stay in Germany he suffered a breakdown, with thoughts of suicide. When he returned home in November 1868, after 18 months in Germany, he was still ill. Though he took the degree of M.D. at the Harvard Medical School in June 1869, he was unable to begin practice. Between that date and 1872 he lived in a state of semi-invalidism in his father’s house, doing nothing but reading and writing an occasional review. Early in this period he experienced a sort of phobic panic, which persisted until the end of April 1870. It was relieved, according to his own statement, by the reading of Renouvier on free will and the decision that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” The decision carried with it the abandonment of all determinisms—both the scientific kind that his training had established for him and that seems to have had some relation to his neurosis and the theological, metaphysical kind that he later opposed in the notion of “the block universe.” His revolutionary discoveries in psychology and philosophy, his views concerning the methods of science, the qualities of men, and the nature of reality all seem to have received a definite propulsion from this resolution of his poignant personal problem.

Interest in psychology
In 1872 James was appointed instructor in physiology at Harvard College, in which capacity he served until 1876. But he could not be diverted from his ruling passion, and the step from teaching physiology to teaching psychology—not the traditional “mental science” but physiological psychology—was as inevitable as it was revolutionary. It meant a challenge to the vested interests of the mind, mainly theological, that were entrenched in the colleges and universities of the United States; and it meant a definite break with what Santayana called “the genteel tradition.” Psychology ceased to be mental philosophy and became a laboratory science. Philosophy ceased to be an exercise in the grammar of assent and became an adventure in methodological invention and metaphysical discovery.

With his marriage in 1878, to Alice H. Gibbens of Cambridge, Mass., a new life began for James. The old neurasthenia practically disappeared. He went at his tasks with a zest and an energy of which his earlier record had given no hint. It was as if some deeper level of his being had been tapped: his life as an originative thinker began in earnest. He contracted to produce a textbook of psychology by 1880. But the work grew under his hand, and when it finally appeared in 1890, as The Principles of Psychology, it was not a textbook but a monumental work in two great volumes, from which the textbook was condensed two years later.

The Principles, which was recognized at once as both definitive and innovating in its field, established the functional point of view in psychology. It assimilated mental science to the biological disciplines and treated thinking and knowledge as instruments in the struggle to live. At one and the same time it made the fullest use of principles of psychophysics (the study of the effect of physical processes upon the mental processes of an organism) and defended, without embracing, free will.

Interest in religion
The Principles completed, James seems to have lost interest in the subject. Creator of the first U.S. demonstrational psychological laboratory, he disliked laboratory work and did not feel himself fitted for it. He liked best the adventure of free observation and reflection. Compared with the problems of philosophy and religion, psychology seemed to him “a nasty little subject” that he was glad to have done with. His studies, which were now of the nature and existence of God, the immortality of the soul, free will and determinism, the values of life, were empirical, not dialectical; James went directly to religious experience for the nature of God, to psychical research for survival after death, to fields of belief and action for free will and determinism. He was searching out these things, not arguing foregone conclusions. Having begun to teach ethics and religion in the late 1880s, his collaboration with the psychical researchers dated even earlier. Survival after death he ultimately concluded to be unproved; but the existence of divinity he held to be established by the record of the religious experience, viewing it as a plurality of saving powers, “a more of the same quality” as oneself, with which, in a crisis, one’s personality can make saving contact. Freedom he found to be a certain looseness in the conjunction of things, so that what the future will be is not made inevitable by past history and present form; freedom, or chance, corresponds to Darwin’s “spontaneous variations.” These views were set forth in the period between 1893 and 1903 in various essays and lectures, afterward collected into works, of which the most notable is The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897). During this decade, which may be correctly described as James’s religious period, all of his studies were concerned with one aspect or another of the religious question.

His natural interest in religion was reinforced by the practical stimulus of an invitation to give the Gifford Lectures on natural religion at the University of Edinburgh. He was not able to deliver them until 1901–02, and their preparation focussed his labours for a number of years. His disability, involving his heart, was caused by prolonged effort and exposure during a vacation in the Adirondacks in 1898. A trip to Europe, which was to have taken up a sabbatical year away from university duties, turned into two years of invalidism. The Gifford Lectures were prepared during this distressful period. Published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), they had an even greater acclaim as a book than as articles. Cautious and tentative though it was, the rich concreteness of the material and the final summary of the evidence—that the varieties of religious experience point to the existence of specific and various reservoirs of consciousness-like energies with which we can make specific contact in times of trouble—touched something fundamental in the minds of religionists and at least provided them with apologetic material not in conflict with science and scientific method. The book was the culmination of James’s interest in the psychology of religion.

Career in philosophy
James now explicitly turned his attention to the ultimate philosophic problems that had been at least marginally present along with his other interests. Already in 1898, in a lecture at the University of California on philosophical conceptions and practical results, he had formulated the theory of method known as Pragmatism. Originating in the strict analysis of the logic of the sciences that had been made in the middle 1870s by Charles Sanders Peirce, the theory underwent in James’s hands a transforming generalization. He showed how the meaning of any idea whatsoever—scientific, religious, philosophical, political, social, personal—can be found ultimately in nothing save in the succession of experiential consequences that it leads through and to; that truth and error, if they are within the reach of the mind at all, are identical with these consequences. Having made use of the pragmatic rule in his study of religious experience, he now turned it upon the ideas of change and chance, of freedom, variety, pluralism, and novelty, which, from the time he had read Renouvier, it had been his preoccupation to establish. He used the pragmatic rule in his polemic against monism and the “block universe,” which held that all of reality is of one piece (cemented, as it were, together); and he used this rule against internal relations (i.e., the notion that you cannot have one thing without having everything), against all finalities, staticisms, and completenesses. His classes rang with the polemic against absolutes, and a new vitality flowed into the veins of American philosophers. Indeed, the historic controversy over Pragmatism saved the profession from iteration and dullness.

Meanwhile (1906), James had been asked to lecture at Stanford University, in California, and he experienced there the earthquake that nearly destroyed San Francisco. The same year he delivered the Lowell Lectures in Boston, afterward published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking (1907). Various studies appeared—“Does Consciousness Exist?” “The Thing and Its Relations,” “The Experience of Activity”—chiefly in The Journal of Philosophy; these were essays in the extension of the empirical and pragmatic method, which were collected after James’s death and published as Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). The fundamental point of these writings is that the relations between things, holding them together or separating them, are at least as real as the things themselves; that their function is real; and that no hidden substrata are necessary to account for the clashes and coherences of the world. The Empiricism was radical because until this time even Empiricists believed in a metaphysical ground like the hidden turtle of Hindu mythology on whose back the cosmic elephant rode.

James was now the centre of a new life for philosophy in the English-speaking world. The continentals did not “get” Pragmatism; if its German opponents altogether misunderstood it, its Italian adherents—among them, of all people, the critic and devastating iconoclast Giovanni Papini—travestied it. In England it was championed by F.C.S. Schiller, in the United States by John Dewey and his school, in China by Hu Shih. In 1907 James gave his last course at Harvard. In the spring he repeated the lectures on Pragmatism at Columbia University. It was as if a new prophet had come; the lecture halls were as crowded on the last day as on the first, with people standing outside the door. Shortly afterward came an invitation to give the Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College, Oxford. These lectures, published in 1909 as A Pluralistic Universe, state, in a more systematic and less technical way than the Essays, the same essential positions. They present, in addition, certain religious overbeliefs of James’s, which further thinking—if the implications of the posthumous Some Problems of Philosophy may be trusted—was to mitigate. These overbeliefs involve a panpsychistic interpretation of experience (one that ascribes a psychic aspect to all of nature) that goes beyond radical Empiricism and the pragmatic rule into conventional metaphysics.

Home again, James found himself working, against growing physical trouble, upon the material that was partially published after his death as Some Problems of Philosophy (1911). He also collected his occasional pieces in the controversy over Pragmatism and published them as The Meaning of Truth (1909). Finally, his physical discomfort exceeded even his remarkable voluntary endurance. After a fruitless trip to Europe in search of a cure, he returned, going straight to the country home in New Hampshire, where he died in 1910.

Significance and influence
In psychology, James’s work is of course dated, but it is dated as is Galileo’s in physics or Charles Darwin’s in biology because it is the originative matrix of the great variety of new developments that are the current vogue. In philosophy, his positive work is still prophetic. The world he argued for was soon reflected in the new physics, as diversely interpreted, with its resonances from Charles Peirce, particularly by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and the Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr—a world of events connected with one another by kinds of next-to-next relations, a world various, manifold, changeful, originating in chance, perpetuated by habits (that the scientist calls laws), and transformed by breaks, spontaneities, and freedoms. In human nature, James believed, these visible traits of the world are equally manifest. The real specific event is the individual, whose intervention in history gives it in each case a new and unexpected turn. But in history, as in nature, the continuous flux of change and chance transforms every being, invalidates every law, and alters every ideal.

James lived his philosophy. It entered into the texture and rhythms of his rich and vivid literary style. It determined his attitude toward scientifically unaccepted therapies, such as Christian Science or mind cure, and repugnant ideals, such as militarism. It made him an anti-imperialist, a defender of the small, the variant, the unprecedented, the weak, wherever and whenever they appeared. His philosophy is too viable and subtle, too hedged, experiential, and tentative to have become the dogma of a school. It has functioned rather to implant the germs of new thought in others than to serve as a standard old system for others to repeat.

Horace M. Kallen




PRAGMATISM: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

Type of work: Philosophical essays
Author: William James (1842-1910)
First published: 1907


No more illuminating or entertaining account of pragmatism has ever been written than William James's Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. But this is more than a popular exposition prepared for the academic audiences of Lowell Institute and Columbia University during the winter of 1906-1907, it is historic philosophy in the making. Although James was profoundly influenced by Charles Sanders Pierce, who invented the basic statement and name of pragmatism, he was in independent thinker with a distinctive creative direction of his own.
Pierce's essay, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," introduced the pragmatic notion that ideas are clarified by considering what we would expect in the way of experience if we were to act in a certain manner. The whole of our conception of the "sensible effects" of an object is the whole of our conception of the objects, according to Peirce. This essay, clear, radical, entertaining, appeared in the Popular Science Monthly in January, 1878. But professional philosophers were not interested in theory advanced by a mathematician, particularly when the theory went against the prevailing idealism of American philosophers. It was not until James revived the idea in 1898 with a talk on "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results" that the pragmatic philosophy began to stir up controversy. With the lectures on meaning and truth which were published under the titles Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, the former in 1907 and the latter in 1909, James brought pragmatism into the forefront of American thought.
In his first lecture on "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy," James distinguished between the "tender-minded" and the "tough-minded" in temperament, the former inclining toward a philosophy that is rational, religious, dogmatic, idealistic, and optimistic, and the latter, the tough-minded, inclining toward a philosophy that is empirical, irreligious, skeptical, materialistic, and pessimistic. He then went on to state his conviction that philosophy can satisfy both temperaments by becoming pragmatic.
His lecture on the pragmatic method begins with one of the most entertaining anecdotes in philosophical discourse. James describes a discussion by a group of philosophers on this question: Does a man go around a squirrel that is on a tree trunk if the squirrel keeps moving on the tree so that the trunk is always between himself and the man? Some of the philosophers claimed that the man did not go around the squirrel, while others claimed that he did. James settled the matter by saying "which party is right depends on what you practically mean by 'going round* the squirrel." It could be said that the man goes around the squirrel since he passes from the north of the squirrel to the east, south, and west of the squirrel. On the other hand, the man could be said not to go around the squirrel since he is never able to get on the various sides of the squirrel—on the right of him, then behind him, and so forth. "Make the distinction," James said, "and there is no occasion for any further dispute,"
James then applied the method to a number of perennial philosophical problems, but only after a careful exposition of the meaning of pragmatism. He described the pragmatic method as a way of interpreting ideas by discovering their practical consequences—that is, the difference the idea's truth would make in our experience. He asks, "What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?" and he replies, "If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle."
In his lecture James argued that the pragmatic method was not new; Socrates, Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume had used it. But what was new was the explicit formulation of the method and a new faith in its power. Pragmatism is to be understood, however, not as a set of grand theories but as a method which turns attention away from first principles and absolutes and directs it to facts, consequences, and results in our experience.
A bare declaration would hardly have been enough to make pragmatism famous. James devoted a considerable part of his lectures to brief examples of the application of the pragmatic method. He cited with approval Berkeley's analysis of matter as made up of sensations. Sensations, he said, "are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations . . ." Similarly, Locke applied the pragmatic method, James claimed, when he discovered that unless by "spirit" we mean consciousness, we mean nothing by the term.
Is materialism or theism true? Is the universe simply matter acting and interacting, or is God involved? James considers this problem pragmatically and reaches a curious result. As far as the past is concerned, he says, it makes no difference. If rival theories are meant to explain what is the case and if it makes no difference in our experience which theory is true, then the theories do not differ in meaning. If one considers the difference now and in the future, however, the case is different: "Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal. . . spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope."
To this kind of analysis some critics have answered with the charge that James is one of the "tender-minded" philosophers he spoke harshly of in his earlier lectures. But throughout the course of this series of lectures and in subsequent books James continued to use pragmatism as a way of combining the tough and tender temperaments. He extended the use of the term "difference" so that the meaning of an idea or term was no longer to be understood merely in terms of sense experiences, as Peirce had urged, but also in terms of passionate differences, of effects upon human hopes and fears. The essays in Pragmatism show this liberalizing tendency hard at work.
The temperate tone of James's suggestions concerning the religious hypothesis is clear in one of his later lectures in the book, "Pragmatism and Religion," in which he writes that "Pragmatism has to postpone dogmatic answer, for we do not yet know certainly which type of religion is going to work best in the long run." He states again that the tough-minded can be satisfied with "the hurly-burly of the sensible facts of nature." and that the tender-minded can take up a monistic form of religion; but for those who mix temperaments, as James does, a religious synthesis that is moralistic and pluralistic, allowing for human development and creativity in various directions, is to be preferred.
Pragmatism is important not only as a clear statement of the pragmatic method and as an illustration of its application to certain central problems but also as an exposition, although introductory, of James's pragmatic theory of truth. His ideas were developed more fully two years later in The Meaning of Truth.
Beginning with the common notion that truth is a property of ideas that agree with reality, James proceeded to ask what was meant by the term "agreement." He decided that the conception of truth as a static relation between an idea and reality was in error, that pragmatic analysis shows that true ideas are those which can eventually be verified, and that an idea is said to be verified when it leads us usefully to an anticipated conclusion. Since verification is a process, it becomes appropriate to say that truth "happens to" an idea, and that an idea "becomes true, is made true by events." A revealing summary statement is this: "The true,' to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as 'the right' is only the expedient in the way of our behaving."
The ambiguity of James's account, an ambiguity which he did not succeed in removing, allows extremes of interpretation. On the one hand, a reader might take the tender-minded route, something in the manner of James himself, and argue that all kinds of beliefs about God, freedom, and immortality are true in so far as they lead a man usefully in the course of his life. On the other hand, a tough-minded reader might be inclined to agree with James that an idea is true if the expectations in terms of which the idea makes sense are expectations that would be met, if one acted—but he might reject James's suggestions that this means that a great many ideas which would ordinarily be regarded as doubtful "become true" when they satisfy the emotional needs of a believer.
One difficulty with which James was forced to deal because of his theory of truth resulted, it might be argued, not from his idea of truth as the "workableness" of an idea, but from his inadequate analyses of the meanings of certain terms such as "God," "freedom" and "design." James maintained that, pragmatically speaking, these terms all meant the same thing, namely, the presence of "promise" in the world. If this were so, then it would be plausible to suppose that if the idea that the world is promising works out, the idea is true. But if James's analysis is mistaken, if "God" means more than the possibility of things working out for the better, James's claim that beliefs about God are true if they work loses its plausibility.
Whatever its philosophic faults, Pragmatism is saved by its philosophic virtues. For the general reader it offers the rare experience of confronting first-rate ideas by way of a clear and entertaining, even informal, style.



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